Burn

Many moons ago, Steve’s dad got this bee in his bonnet about moving. This was long after Steve and I had stopped being a couple, after coming out to his folks, after the end of his second (only other) long-term relationship — but before he’d slid too far down the path into the dark.

Anyway, J (Steve’s dad) was forever on about moving. Different city, different state, didn’t seem to much matter to him, as long as it was different and far away from his current life. Steve’s mom, B, was still working the first few times the subject came up — and she was NOwhere near ready to “retire” to a place she’d never been, with no job and no friends, just to spend 24/7 with J, the retired law enforcement sergeant and recovering alcoholic who, once he stopped drinking, didn’t really have any other hobbies…except maybe having become the next-best thing to a born-again Christian during his recovery. That was…fun.

I mean, they loved each other, J and B did, but Steve and I could watch them, did watch them more times than I could count, go from amity to acrimony in less than ten minutes because neither of them seemed able to stop pushing the other’s buttons. Hell, I’m not sure they ever figured out they even HAD buttons, let alone knew what they were doing to set each other off, which pretty much made them clueless about how to stop.

What, you think Steve should have said something? He may have, to his mom, anyway. But his dad was an angry, nasty drunk with a hair-trigger temper, and that’s something that didn’t change after J kicked alcohol.

So here’s J, wanting to move, and B not wanting to pull up stakes and essentially isolate herself from her family and friends and spend all her time dealing with J, who fit the description of a dry drunk at least part of the time. On it went, and on, and on.

They wound up buying a succession of motor homes, each bigger and fancier than the next. Well, okay, maybe not a succession, because I only distinctly remember two, but it’s possible there was another one in there I just zoned out about. Anyway, motor homes, packing up themselves and the pets and off they’d go. When B finally did quit her job (company buyout and/or management change for the worse), the trips got longer and more involved. It was all about being Somewhere Else.

Sometimes, when J was holding forth about THE JOYS OF MOVING TO MAKE LIFE BETTER BECAUSE THIS PLACE (where they’d lived since Steve was a baby) WAS BORING AND NOTHING GOOD EVER HAPPENED and B was making an obvious effort to be oblivious, to say absolutely nothing, since when he got into those moods (or rather, most of the time in general), there was no right thing to say. Even the simplest question or comment was seen by J as an attack, and he only had two response settings: happy and Hiroshima.

Steve and I would wind up in the kitchen (freshening our cocktails often as not , since J had no objections to other people enjoying what he’d chosen to leave behind, and I do have to give him a huge amount of credit for having done it, it cannot have been easy), listening to this, and more than once, one of us would turn to the other and murmur, “No matter where you go, there you are.” (All thanks to Buckaroo Bonzai.)

Because of course, what J wanted to leave behind was himself. He thought that changing the externals would make his life all happy and shiny and wonderful; the rest of us knew that, in fact, no matter where you go, there you are. All your joys, all your pain, your irritations and dissatisfactions and flaws and strengths and hopes and dreams — all right there inside, and so it didn’t matter so much where you were on the outside.

Sure, a new place, or a series of new places, can shake things up in the short term, and maybe for some people, in the long term. But what the externals can’t necessarily do is cause a spontaneous change in the internal landscape. Outside, you might be looking at grand and glorious vistas, beauty you’d never seen before — but inside, you’re trudging head down along the same dirt road you’ve seen in your heart every time you close your eyes, gravel-strewn, rocky, potholed to the point it barely deserves to be called a road, nothing to see on either side but gray dust, dun hills, straggling, struggling bushes of a shade too disappointed to be called green. Even if the external changes can get you into a different bit of the landscape, the ruts are worn deep, and lack of attention will put you right back where you were.

Did I say lack of attention? True enough, but maybe lack of INtention works just as well, or even better. I think — and this is ME thinking, your personal mileage may most definitely vary — I think that unless you want to make a change, nothing on the outside can make you, no matter how personally horrific those external forces may be.

I mean, let’s face it. No: let ME face it: I had no end of external forces telling me that what I was doing was not working in any sense of the word, and I was headed for a wide world of hurt and trouble. But I simply… reacted. I did what I thought would deal with the immediate issue — wrongly thought, mostly — solve THAT issue, THAT problem, and never mind the eleventy-hundred things lined up behind. Not to mention the fact that more often than not, the thing I thought I’d handled just slid to the back of the line for another go when I was even weaker and more demoralized.

In early 2010, after the mortgage crisis had gotten itself well established and the financial market had tanked as well (taking at least forty percent of what little saving I still had with it), I realized I had only five or six months’ worth of mortgage payment in the bank. So, much as I hated the idea of working FOR a company, I started looking for work. That decision tells you all you need to know, I think, about my success as a freelancer. And it was at this point I discovered the job market was also in the toilet: one of the stats I heard was three million jobs available and thirteen million people looking for work.

Not great odds even for people with the advantages of a solid middle-class background, a degree, and a strong work ethic. I found that out quickly enough.

It’s possible that my first thought should have been to sell the house while I still had a good payment record. But it needed some work, though it was all cosmetic, and there seemed no guarantee that doing the work would get me a good enough price for the house that I could both get out from under the mortgage and have anything left over to live on. And I still needed to live somewhere, didn’t I? So, “sell house” as an option? Completely invisible from my little stretch of potholes and dust.

I missed my June mortgage payment. And I never had the money to make another. I hated it, I was so ashamed that I couldn’t meet my responsibilities, but what could I do but keep plugging along, looking for a job that would stabilize me, let me qualify for a real refinance from a reputable bank instead of just rewriting the piece of crap I had from a “bank” that barely deserved the name and went into receivership a few months later because of its portfolio of toxic loans. The piece-of-crap loan I’d let myself be talked into by someone I’d been told I could trust. And if you think the realization of just how wrong that choice was didn’t sting, didn’t offer the emotional equivalent of the death of a thousand cuts every single day, think again.

Then, hip hip hurrah, I had an unexpected conversation that got me a job! A part-time job, but it had potential!

Well, maybe not so much potential. But it was income of a sort, and I was glad to have even that much. What little satisfaction I felt for it evaporated when I got the foreclosure notice.

Those external factors just kept piling up, and my road never so much as drifted into a new direction.First, notice of foreclosure (and the guilt, and the shame). Then notice of intent to sell foreclosed property at auction. Realization that, even if the job went closer to full time, I wasn’t making enough to offset the credit card debt, far too much at too high a rate to realistically expect to pay for it and a mortgage too, and so bankruptcy hoped up on the table. And I had to borrow money to afford to file for bankruptcy, so cue more guilt, more shame…

It never occurred to me to look for a second job, or for a different but full-time one. I had to be loyal to the person who’d given me the job I had, didn’t I, that kept me and the cats afloat through the nearly six months it took to get my bankruptcy judgment (in which I took next to no joy, just so we’re clear on the matter, still very little beyond the certain knowledge I wasn’t a responsible person, that in my mother’s eyes (based on her words) I’d have been a no-account deadbeat for even thinking of filing, let alone going through with it. And of course, the foreclosure process that went on hold during the bankruptcy kicked right back in the minute I got the judgment. Externals piling up, pushing me down, burying me, scared breathless, scared shitless, no confidence, no options I could see from my patch of mental road. Just more of the same, all day, every day, stress, worry, fear, loss, more loss, still more, and my loyalty to the job turned around and bit two months after my bankruptcy ended when I went in on a Sunday to open and my key wouldn’t work.

Really, truly losing the house. The mover from hell. Surrendering cats. Finding out three were put down. Unemployment running out — hard to have benefits extended if there’s nothing left in the pot in the first place, and benefits on a part-time job held for less than a year? Peanuts. So… Food stamps. “General relief”, a.k.a welfare. Losing my rented room. Homeless shelter. Car totaled.

Reacting to externals — those changes on the outside, like J and his endless rounds of LET’S MOVE, except unlike J, I never sought these, hell no — got me exactly nowhere. I was so settled, so “stable” (not really, of course, but I always had been before, so it was my default state of mind), I literally couldn’t, or wouldn’t see that I had any choices left.

Whatever spark I might have had, whatever inner fire that might once have lit my path… days on end I thought it was out, gone for good, maybe never really existed in the first place. And yet I still did what I was supposed to do to stay in the good graces of the county and the state and the shelter: look for work. Go through the jobs programs. Look for work. Because the alternative was to give up completely.

“Get busy living,” says Red in The Shawshank Redemption, “or get busy dying.” No way was I ready to die in a literal sense — and whether I realized it at the time or not, I wasn’t ready to die figuratively, either. That would have meant giving up everything I had left, staying in the system, living on the street once the six-month program at the shelter had run its course, and you know what?

Wasn’t interested.

I still feel like I didn’t do anything extraordinary, just put one foot in front of the other until finally something clicked, something worked, and I could get out. But I chose. I opened myself to the possibility of change, to the idea that maybe the various jobs programs had information I could use, that accountability might help me not just keep my benefits, but reach the point where I didn’t need them anymore.

And I have. I hung on, and I got through. I still have a way to go yet, but it’s something I can look forward to and know I stand at least a chance of accomplishing it.

The me who drove away, sobbing her guts out, from the place I’d lived nearly forty years, is not the me writing this post. I recognize her, I could become her again so frighteningly fast if I let my attention, my intention, lapse for too long. But my inner landscape has changed because I chose to change it. I am a different me.

All of which, oddly enough, is preface.

Things have been shaking around in my head since my last birthday. Not quite sure why; 55 isn’t typically considered a landmark (“I’m 16, I can drive!” “I’m 18, I can vote!” “I’m 21, I can drink!” “I’m 55, I can…bwuh?”). But something different is going on, and I want to listen.

I don’t want to just live.

I want to burn.

Now, burning can be a good thing or a bad thing. The flame that keeps you alive in the dark and the cold can take your life if you aren’t careful, if you don’t respect it. What goes into the crucible comes out purer, more itself — assuming the flames don’t melt the crucible and make a ruin of everything. But without the burn — of a sun, of our internal furnace, of our hearts — maybe we don’t live at all.

I want to burn again.

I want to burn creatively. I remember how it felt to be consumed by the ideas for my first novel, how the bones and the major story lines dropped into my head entire, how I’d spend the day at work looking forward to writing into the small hours because it was just so there, just so good — I was on fire with it. I saw the characters, heard their voices telling me who they were and what they wanted, saw where they went and what they did there moment to moment. It changed, of course, greatly changed, and it’s still changing because I didn’t have the faith in myself to see it was good and let it go out into to the world and try for publication. But this year I will pull it together and put it up on Archive of our worn, where it can join its younger, though chronologically earlier, sibling in the world of fan fiction. And if it gets read, wonderful. And if it doesn’t? Well, I wrote it because it was either write or lose it, and I knew it was too much fun to lose.

I’ll write other things, too, some in the realm of fanfic, maybe, some that might be actually publishable, and not least the tale of my last few years. Whether I treat it as nonfiction, or as memoir, or as fictionalized real life (if it stills cuts too close to the bone to make it a hundred percent “real”), I don’t know yet. But more people than I can count have told me I need to write it, that it has value, that it matters. And it does matter. I’m not quite ready to tackle this one yet, I don’t think: I read comments I made on Making Light when darkness was all I could see, and I get overwhelmed by the despair of that time rather than accepting it and rejoicing that it’s past.

But I will write it. It’s part of the burn.

And I want to burn with passion again. I’ve been alone a long time. I’d rather be alone than be stuck in a bad relationship out of desperation, this is true. On the other hand, I’m pretty sure those aren’t my only two choices. I’m just as deserving of love, of romance, of passion, as anyone else, even assuming it’s a matter of deserving it and I don’t buy that one for a second. Ages ago, Steve and I were talking — I think it was shortly after I discovered that my current crush was was rather more Steve’s type than mine (dammit), and I said something to the effect that being alone was getting old. And he said, “You could have had as many men as you wanted. It’s just, you have standards.”

Unspoken was that those standards had a much higher minimum than “straight, and breathing”. On another occasion, when I confessed to fancying one of our mutual friends (who was straight, and was breathing, so that was out of the way), Steve started shaking his head almost before I got the words out. “Never happen,” he said. “You’re smarter than he is, and he knows it.” And he didn’t have to say the rest: it intimidated the hell out of him.

Okay. So I’m smart. Not in everything, no one’s smart in everything, but at least I know that and I’m willing to be educated where I have blind spots.

On the other hand, I refuse to dumb myself down just to get laid. And I shouldn’t have to. It’s not like I stand around bragging about how smart I am, or have any intention of starting, because that’s actually an automatic demonstration of dumb. But pretending to be less than I am seems like a losing strategy. If he (whoever he is) can’t be happy and proud that I’m smarter than the average bear, and also be willing to teach me what I don’t know, and maybe even be interested finding things to learn together — well, without that willingness on both our parts, it’s doomed from the start and we should spare ourselves the potential heartbreak. And guess what? If he’s smarter than I am, more power to him, as long as he isn’t an ass about it. (If I can’t be, neither can he — fair’s fair.)

I also refuse to believe the statistics people drag out to “prove” that women my age, and my weight, stand a better chance of being hit by fucking lightning than finding a decent worthwhile guy. Some of this came up for me, at least tangentially, in a recent conversation I had with a friend, who said something to the effect that if I expected to be able to attract a man, I had to let him know I had something to offer. And while part of my brain was trying to work out whether or not that was intended to mean sex as a quid pro quo, another part was saying, quite rationally — although it never made it out of my mouth at the time — just exactly how am I supposed to let him (that mythical him again) know I have anything to offer if he won’t get close enough to me to find out in the first place?

Finding love in a vacuum seems rather… unlikely. And in retrospect, I think what my friend meant was that I had to be willing to let my guard down. I’ve had enough experiences where I let a man know I was interested, and HE let me know just How Happy He Was To Have Me As A Friend, to have put up a few walls. Not so much to keep potential lovers out, I think, as to keep from letting my feelings show, lest he (a he, any he, the mythical please don’t be mythical he) find my interest intimidating or offensive or in any other way unacceptable.

Might be time to breach those walls. Put in a door, maybe a couple of windows… I don’t NEED a man to be complete as a person in general, or as a woman in particular. What I would like is the opportunity to help each other to become better together than we are alone. Hell, even friends with benefits could be fun, assuming we (a) actually are friends in the first place and (b) are both enjoying the benefits. πŸ˜‰

[Part of me is screaming right now that I can’t possibly intend to put that on the Internet, take it out NOW DAMMIT NOW. Another part is telling the first part to stop clutching its pearls and take a hike. It’s part of who I am and I refuse to be ashamed of it anymore.]

And there’s another way I want to burn.

I’m going to Burning Man this year.

That’s the plan. I’ve already arranged for the time off work, and I’ll have my ticket money set aside by the time individual ticket registration opens next month.

Now, had you told me, say, five years ago, that I’d be planning to go to Burning Man, I’d have looked at you cross-eyed and asked if you’d brought enough of whatever you’d ingested to share with the rest of the class. If you’d said it two years ago, I’d have mumbled, “Right, sure, whatever,” and gone back to looking for work. I hadn’t even heard of Burning Man before 2005, as far as I can recall, and that year only because one of the friends in the networking group I belonged to said HE was going. Came back talking about having wound up on the Random Pajama-Clad Guerrilla Hug Brigade. And from that time until last year, Burning Man never made it onto my radar.

But last year, I couldn’t swing a cat without hitting someone who was going to Burning Man, whether first time or returning, or someone who’d gone and wanted to go back, someone who described it in brief and then maybe ran out of words, but smiled, or looked so profoundly awed or touched or inspired by the experience.

If I believed in that kind of thing, I’d say the universe was trying to get my attention. Trying, hell, the universe stood behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and when I turned it hit me between the eyes with a clue stick like a two-by-four.

And maybe I should listen.

I don’t know what I’ll find there. Like everything, “No matter where you go, there you are” is undoubtedly in play, what you experience there tied intimately to who you are and what you bring with you, whether inspiration or baggage or the willingness to be changed if change be offered. So, since I don’t know, I’ll prepare my mind to accept the unexpected while I also prepare for the very real necessities of surviving for a week in the middle of the desert with 60,000 strangers.

Hell, maybe I’ll even work up the nerve to ask one or another of the two or three groups of friends who went last year if I can be part of their camp if they’re going again. And if it works out, lovely, and if it doesn’t… well the Burning Man site has many helpful suggestions about how to participate. I’ve got some reading ahead of me, and some reaching out to do.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the last few years, though, it’s that if you ask, you might get a no — but if you never ask, it’s impossible for anyone to say yes.

I’ll leave you with this, poetry performed with music. It hit enough of the things I’ve been thinking about to crystallize what I wanted to say. In it, Shane, the poet, says, “Let us burn like we mean it.” And as I put it when I shared it on Facebook last night…

This. Just this. Let us burn. We are the phoenix, so let us burn.

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3 Comments

Filed under change, fear, homelessness, inertia, writing

3 responses to “Burn

  1. fascinating; we are a bit up in air, landlady died; future will tell; eye out for options; I can see you going to burning man; you go girl

  2. Syd

    Esther, I’m so sorry! Sending good-housing mojo stat!

    And Burning Man…one way or another, it’ll be an adventure… πŸ™‚

  3. Evelyn

    You are a brilliant writer. Please write and write and write and write. I would love to see you published one day in the not so distant future.

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